Archive for the ‘By the Rivers of Babylon…ie, Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, etc.’ Category

Thrivent No Longer Supports Pro-Life Organizations: Too “Divisive”

I guess I’m out of the loop.  I hadn’t heard about this:

No Thrivent Dollars to Pro-Life Organizations

I trust the source, but haven’t investigated it for myself.  This calls for discussion and prayer at St. Peter Lutheran Church and all other pro-life Lutheran congregations.  Which is to say Lutheran congregations that are faithful to the Scriptures that teach that the fifth commandment applies to all human beings, including those who are still growing in their mothers’ womb.

Look here for the LCMS response to this.

Since I’m out of the loop, I’m looking for some information that tells me what resolution, if any, has come to this.  If someone knows, let me know so I can take this post down.  But if there is no resolution (which would be unsurprising), there is need for further “dialogue” about this.

Read more…

Stanley Hauerwas: American Christians Believe in Belief Instead of in God.

July 23, 2013 2 comments

i'm still a good person“American Protestants do not have to believe in God because they believe in belief.  That is why we have never been able to produce interesting atheists.  The god most Americans say they believe in just is not interesting enough to deny.  The only atheism that counts in America is to call into question the proposition that everyone has a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

I read an essay by Stanley Hauerwas, a famous theologian (such as that is possible today) at Duke University, from which the choice quote above is taken.  He does a remarkable job of explaining why the widespread American belief in God seldom results in much that is recognizably Christian:

America is the first great experiment in Protestant social formation. Protestantism in Europe always assumed and depended on the cultural habits that had been created by Catholic Christianity. America is the first place Protestantism did not have to define itself over against a previous Catholic culture. So America is the exemplification of a constructive Protestant social imagination.

I believe – as Mark Noll rightly suggests in his book, America’s God – America is a synthesis of evangelical Protestantism, republican political ideology and commonsense moral reasoning. Americans were able to synthesize these antithetical traditions by making their faith in God indistinguishable from their loyalty to a country that insured them that they had the right to choose which god they would or would not believe in. That is why Bonhoeffer accurately characterized America Protestantism as “Protestantism without Reformation.”

American Protestants do not have to believe in God because they believe in belief. That is why we have never been able to produce interesting atheists in America. The god most Americans say they believe in just is not interesting enough to deny. The only kind of atheism that counts in America is to call into question the proposition that everyone has a right to life, liberty and happiness.

Thus America did not need to have an established church because it was assumed that the church was virtually established by the everyday habits of public life. For example, Noll calls attention to the 1833 amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution that did away with church establishment but nonetheless affirmed “the public worship of God, and the instructions in piety, religion, and morality, promote the happiness and prosperity of a people, and the security of republican government.” Noll points out that these words were written at the same time Alexis de Tocqueville had just returned to France from his tour of North America. Tocqueville descriptively confirmed the normative point made in the Massachusetts Constitution, observing:

“I do not know if all Americans have faith in their religion – for who can read to the bottom of hearts? – but I am sure that they believe it necessary to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion does not belong only to one class of citizens or to one party, but to the entire nation; one finds it in all ranks.”

Protestantism came to the land we now call American to make America Protestant. It was assumed that what it meant to be American and Protestant was equivalent to a faith in the reasonableness of the common man and the establishment of a democratic republic. But in the process the church in America became American – or, as Noll puts it, “because the churches had done so much to make America, they could not escape living with what they had made.”

As a result Americans continue to maintain a stubborn belief in a god, but the god they believe in turns out to be the American god. To know or worship that god does not require that a church exist because that god is known through the providential establishment of a free people. This is a presumption shared by the religious right as well as the religious left in America. Both assume that America is the church.

Noll ends his account of these developments with the end of the Civil War, but the fundamental habits he identifies as decisive in the formation of the American religious and political consciousness continues to shape the way Christians – in particular, Protestant Christians – understand their place in America.

Yet I think we are beginning to see the loss of confidence by Protestants in their ability to sustain themselves in America, just to the extent that the inevitable conflict between the church, republicanism, and common sense morality has now worked its way out. America is the great experiment in Protestant social thought but the world Protestants created now threatens to make Protestantism unintelligible to itself.

for the whole article:

Doubting Thomas Kinkade and Diet Ho-Ho’s

April 4, 2013 4 comments

doubting thomas kinkadeI hate baptized consumerism.  Actually, that’s not the right term.  It should be something like “Making a decision to invite Jesus’ merchandise into my heart.”  Or, “They’ll know we are Christians by our stuff, by our stuff,” which is usually a crappy remake of whatever fad is selling in the secular market.

I hate Christian consumerism.  As though all you gotta do to be saved is say a prayer, and all you gotta do to be sanctified is stop listening to Lil Wayne and start listening to a guy who sounds almost exactly like Lil Wayne but doesn’t swear and tosses in Christ’s name here and there.

It’s like, “Sure, you can still eat twinkies and not go to the fat farm!  We’re just going to take the delicious animal fat cream filling out of them.  And make the yellow cake out of soybeans.  But it’ll be great!  But your whole life will change!”

Evangelicalism, when it behaves like this, should be called “Diet World” or “Diet Cross” or “Diet Christ”.  Don’t lie to me.  I know the low sugar ho-hos don’t taste as good as the real ones.  I also know you don’t get skinny by trying to continue to eat ho hos, just with fewer calories.

I’d better stop now before I get started.  The whole point was to show this excellent picture I accidentally found.

Exorcising The Christmas Spirit with the Gospel

November 21, 2012 3 comments

At my house, Christmas music begins to play sometime in the middle or early part of November.  If you’ve ever listened to Christmas radio stations, you know that they play the same songs over and over and over and over and over again. 


And then they play them a few more times.


It isn’t yet Thanksgiving, but I’ve already heard Wham!’s “Last Christmas I Gave You My Heart” at least five times. This is perhaps the only song of Wham’s oeuvre which still emerges from the mists of the early 80’s to remind us of those, by comparison to today, almost Victorian times when George Michael was still into women and when pop stars didn’t come out of the closet.


I think that’s probably a big part of the reason why people who like holiday music like holiday music, just as it’s probably part of the reason why people who have never lived in the country like the formulaic Chevy-truck-ad jingles that comprise most of what’s played on country-music (so-called) radio stations.  People like it, at least in part, because it makes them feel safe.


Christmas begins about the same time in my house that it does in much of the United States—following hard upon Halloween.  Both holidays were once Christian holy days, to whatever degree they may have been reappropriated from pagans.


In America they are pagan holidays again, although I think Samhain (isn’t that what the Wiccans call it?), Yule, and Saturnalia would be more enjoyable.  What offends me about American subversions of Christian holidays—American re-paganization—is the awful aesthetics.  Some of my aversion to “Christmas” in America arises from the way that the mystery and the miracle of the incarnation of God is obscured. 

But mostly it’s just elitism. 


I’ve hated American consumerism since I was a kid.  It blights the mind, soul, and imagination by constantly making available (for a price) whatever is convenient and easily digestible.  In its wake it leaves mind-numbingly ugly and boring places to live.  It destroys all sense of the sacred.  It creates soft minds and shrunken souls. 


But my elitism really is an impediment when it comes to being a pastor. I don’t want to be superior or right; I want to teach Christians how the Church’s preparation for the birth of Jesus ought to be very different from the cheap consolation provided by American “Christmas.” 


Cheap consolation is really the enemy in almost every case when liturgical pastors and pastors wanting to teach the doctrine of Evangelical Lutheran Church run into resistance from popular piety.  American pop Christianity sells because people want to feel good and safe and because it’s easy to understand.  Sometimes people turn to it because they are suffering and they need answers immediately.  Other times people turn to it because it permits them to indulge themselves with the illusion that the solution to the suffering we endure as a result of living in a collapsing world  is to go back to the simple answers about God we really always knew and from which we were never far. 

American “Christmas”and its associated rituals—holiday music beginning in November, flagrant overspending, Christmas carol singing in Advent and parties in school, church, work all through December, overeating and overdrinking–all the Christmasy things that enable us to avoid honest appraisal of our selves, our lives, the way our society is going, and numb ourselves into a syrupy, sentimental glow—is almost exactly like American Christianity.

But here is where pastors and hearers who know something of the value of the pure teaching of the Gospel and the right administration of the Sacraments and the liturgy and hymnody of the Church fail.  American “Christianity” and American “Christmas” is democratic, and we are too often elitists.  American “Christmas” isn’t supercilious toward people who just want to feel safe and good. It embraces them.


 A lot of people believe that if they really like a song by Elvis, nobody can tell them that Bach’s music is simply better.  So if they hear Joel Osteen preach and understand him, they also think that no one can tell them that a sermon by Chrysostom or Luther is simply better either. 

American “Christmas” and American “Christianity” accept this reality in people and cater to it.  But not only do I not cater to it—I despise it and have almost zero patience when people expect me to do the same thing.  Lacking patience and love toward people who don’t immediately respond to real Christianity and real Christmas is not a Christian virtue.  Harboring anger and resentment toward Lutherans who are stubborn in adhering to bad teaching and traditions flowing from that teaching–whether out of snobbery or  out of anger–is grave sin.  With this anger we make the Gospel noxious because we smear it with the scent of our own pride.  Particularly pastors.  When I get mad because I’m trying to teach God’s Word purely and you’re not listening, I’m really mad because you’re not respecting me or listening to me.  And that is to use the ministry of the Gospel which Christ instituted for the salvation of sinners as a means of exalting myself.

Jesus preached and taught to the masses; He didn’t tickle ears, but taught the Word of God in a way that was accessible to normal people–not only the great.  He was patient and continued to teach even when He met with opposition and mistreatment.  Luther preached to and taught the masses.  He sought to elevate them—that’s why the Reformation went hand in hand with a renewal of education.  But he also taught; patiently, bearing with the people, serving them and caring enough to be understood by them.   

I’ve failed consistently in this way.  It’s not that I didn’t teach, but that I became angry and afraid when people didn’t get it or didn’t appear to want to get it.  On the one hand there is fear because you want to be a good pastor, be faithful to Christ, serve the people.  On the other hand there is simply sin and profanation of God’s Name and Word.  There was my desire to be honored that trumped any other desire–whether to love and serve the congregation or to love and serve Christ.  I was unwilling to bear with unjust criticism without snapping at my critics. At other times I’ve reacted to criticism that I thought was unjust with anger or defensiveness, later realizing that I was wrong, that I was failing to properly divide law and gospel, and I needed to be opposed. 


Lutherans also have to be democratic in the sense that we are willing to teach God’s Word—slowly, patiently, consistently—and bear with people.  That is the way that Jesus was democratic.  He loved the people.  So He was willing to teach them–the eternal Son–even when they wouldn’t hear Him and when they dishonored Him.  Love means patiently teaching and listening to criticism and learning slowly, over time, where you are not being understood.  So often people embrace false teaching, or bad traditions, because they are scared or because they feel stupid and the false teaching relieves the feelings of stupidity by addressing people where they are. 


Then a guy like me comes in, teaches for awhile, receives flak, and very quickly begins responding in anger to the people.  And is it any surprise if people then run to preachers (or to religious practices) that make them feel safe, that feel familiar?  Is it surprising if people go to a pastor who is nice and acts like he loves them [even though he is a wolf], instead of to the one who comes to change everything and says, “You are doing it wrong”, and reacts with harshness and arrogance when they don’t immediately listen?  In trying to roll back American Christmas in Lutheran churches so that we can once again observe Advent, there will be the inevitable conflict.  People will say it’s “too catholic.”  Probably one of the best ways we can observe Advent is to try to fast and repent of  haughty and angry defensiveness, and show kindness, patience, and love to people who haven’t yet experienced the blessing of preparing for the mystery of Christ’s birth through Advent.  Really, it’s not something to get angry about, but to have pity about, that lots of people would prefer to sing Christmas Carols for a month and haven’t developed a taste for the rich gospel we have in so many Lutheran Advent hymns.


I’m grateful for my beautiful wife and son and for the opportunity they give me to practice not being a jerk about American Christmas in Advent.  I am thankful for the opportunity to learn to  lead our family, graciously, into the gift of observing Advent with its call to repentance, faith, and willing obedience to Christ. 


In long gone times there were outward, physical disciplines associated with repentance, faith, and renewal.  Self-examination and confession and fasting went with repentance.  Attending Advent services midweek meant giving one’s attention to Christ’s Word, which works in contrite hearts the faith that our sins, from which we cannot free ourselves, have been blotted out by the suffering and death of the baby of Mary.  And where this faith is, there is joyful giving from a new and glad and confident heart.  So Christians practiced almsgiving.  Instead of buying family huge, extravagant gifts, they gave to the poor.  This is the way I want to learn to spend Advent with my family.  But that is a lot harder than simply trashing American consumerist “Christmas” and its associated rites, such as having to listen to “Feliz Navidad” for a month and a half.  As annoying as that is.  It takes doing it myself, and then walking with them into it.  Not just giving orders.

I wrote an article for the church newsletter trying to explain the importance of Advent and why we don’t immediately start singing Christmas hymns in church in December.  And I also tried to point out why it would be better if during Advent the Church behaved differently from the world, and instead of the church calendar filling up in December with Christmas parties (during Advent), we should consciously reject the way the world tries to greet the miracle of Jesus’ birth not by “making straight the way of the Lord” but by bombarding ourselves with things designed to arouse “the proper Christmas spirit”.  I don’t know whether the article will succeed as a gracious attempt to teach the gifts of Advent or whether it will be one more instance of making people feel dumb and then wondering why they reject what you say.  I’ll post it on here shortly.

Our society really need this witness from the Church in Advent.  But it will never happen if those who understand the gift of Advent don’t love people enough to teach patiently and bear with people when they don’t get it or reject it.  So I hope that God will teach me and sinners like me to love and serve our brothers and show the value of pure doctrine and the church’s liturgy by demonstrating the love and patience that come from the Gospel.  Then maybe they could hear that we are truly safe in Him—not in the false comfort that comes from avoiding penitence, but in the true comfort given by Him who was placed in a manger to deliver us from our sins.



Gebets-Schatz: Prayer on the Festival of the Reformation

October 8, 2012 3 comments

Prayer on the Festival of the Reformation

(October 8, 2012)

Lord Jesus Christ, You came into the world to call sinners to repentance, and to enlighten every man to eternal life.  We praise You with our whole hearts, and thank Your great goodness and mercy, that You have come to this place, and to this church and communion with Your divine word and holy sacraments and have swept out the leaven of the papist doctrine and idolatry.   Not only that, but You have also redeemed us poor sinners from the kingdom of darkness and called us to the light of the holy gospel, transferring us into the kingdom of grace.

Oh Lord Jesus, we are too insignificant for all of this Your goodness and faithfulness.  But we pray to You with humble hearts that You would abide with us a little longer with Your grace, the divine word and holy sacraments, so that Your holy name would be known among us, alone be feared and glorified, and we live as is well-pleasing to You, and serve You.  But whatever evil we have done against You and Your holy word—wherever we have not been willing to listen to the gospel—please forgive us those things, Lord Jesus Christ, by Your grace.  Do not snatch away from us this treasure that makes a person blessed forever, but let it be preserved unadulterated by us and our descendants.  Yes, Lord Jesus, preserve Your Word among us, because it is the joy and comfort of our hearts.

 Protect and keep us and Your whole Christian Church—that is, Your Evangelical-Lutheran Church—from all error, unbelief, and harmful, alien doctrine.  Defend against all enemies, persecutors, and slanderers, and be our confidence, our strength, our shade and shield, so that the gates of hell do not overcome us.  Especially we pray to You, Lord, our Savior, that You would visit the house of our hearts, enlighten us with Your Holy Spirit, purify our hearts, and grant that by grace we may walk worthily of the Gospel, remaining in the truth once recognized and confessed.  O Lord Jesus, let Your salvation come to our souls, that we might become eternally blessed through You, and might see Your and Your great glory forever.  Amen.

Burying a Church…from “The High Mid Life”

August 7, 2012 1 comment

Some pastor sent this to my friend Pr. Fiene, and I’m linking to it and copying it here.  I can relate to the writer.  Almost too much.  It’s good to know that my pastoral experience is not unique.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Burying a Church

An anonymous friend wrote this article and asked me to publish it here.
This brother is not alone in his struggles.  And while I believe it’s meet, right, and salutary for a pastor to feel a sorrowful sting every time he looks down from the pulpit and sees that no nursing children or newlywed couples have taken the seats of the saints he’s been burying, he ought not feel like a failure.
When we look at a congregation of senior citizens who cling too tightly to the past with one hand and perhaps not tightly enough to the Word with the other, we see something to disdain. 
But this is not what Christ sees.  Rather, Christ sees a flock of wrinkled sheep that He will never cease to feed and love and defend, a collection of saints that He is still preserving with His life, even when all five of our senses tell us that death has already consumed them.
So no matter many times you’ve received no response when you’ve commanded Lazarus to arise, and no matter how hoarse you’ve grown from calling out his name, keep shouting.  You do not speak this word in vain.  And Christ will continue to bring life and resurrection through your lips that preach and your hands that baptize and commune.
Burying a Church
by an anonymous Lutheran pastor
Once, my wife told me that she thought that my strength as a pastor was comforting the bereaved, preaching at funerals, burying the dead.
I was angry with her for saying that.  But she said that she meant it as a compliment.  “That’s probably the hardest thing for a pastor to do,” was something like what she said.
Burying people is probably near the top of the list of things I have done consistently and successfully as a pastor.
On a given year I usually confirm around one, two, or three adolescents.  I may confirm or receive by affirmation of faith about as many adults.  I baptize around 8 babies, most of which are the grandchildren of members who don’t live nearby or the children of members who don’t attend Divine Service more than a few times a year.
But I bury between 20 and 25 people every year.  About two people a month.  My work among the living is like a civil war officer trying to keep his command from routing, trying to get them to advance, to keep advancing.  But ground is lost every day.
My work among the dead and the mourners is a constant labor during which I am largely isolated from the congregation, preaching to family members who are alienated from the church or who have forsaken the Lutheran church for communions that still seem to win victories.
Burying the dead often seems to be my real work, that and caring for those for whom death is now a houseguest. Preaching and teaching to those who are still healthy feels like preaching to the deaf, or like saying, “Lazarus, come forth!”  and he doesn’t.  Or like a ghost preaching to a congregation of ghosts.  Trying to work with the congregation’s leaders to administrate feels often like the restless movements of the bedridden—not only on their part but mine.  So much not only of what the congregation wants, but also of what I want—perhaps it is vain.  We think we are living and we can make things happen.  We feel like it is our responsibility.
One of the reasons why it is possible to comfort the bereaved and to comfort the dying is because I do not feel as though I am responsible to stop it.  With a congregation it is different.
When I first arrived at the congregation I was confident that I could get people fired up and working together.  That’s poor theology, but theology is easily diverted or diluted by what we want and what we need—what I would be more quick to call “idolatry” in the face of congregational criticism.
Six years in, I feel utterly powerless and mostly exhausted.  You try to rally the troops and lead some charges, not realizing that many of the troops have been on many charges and are too tired to do it anymore.  But a few go with you, maybe against their better judgment.  Probably as many more want you to fail.  And the mass don’t pay any attention.
After awhile, you can’t do it anymore.  The politics within the congregation continues.  The numbers decline in church and school.  There’s no time to go after the sheep who are never join the rest of the flock by the pulpit and the altar.  There are no volunteers to help give rides to church or check on why others aren’t attending.  They’re overwhelmed with the inroads the enemy makes into their areas of responsibility—their children, grandchildren, sick parents and spouses.
And yet—the death of a congregation can be averted—can’t it?  Should we always chalk it up to God’s hidden will?  Or does God sometimes allow the congregation to decline because He wants His congregation to seek Him?  He hides Himself, desiring to be sought?  He wants the congregation to examine herself, to fast and pray for the lost sheep, to listen attentively again to His Word?  “In their distress they shall earnestly seek me…” Where is that verse?
Even with dying people we counsel them to accept God’s will as coming from the hand of a gracious Father.  “He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?”  Yet we also do not stop praying for the recovery of the dying—if it is God’s will.
Often with the elderly it isn’t easy to know what to pray for, particularly if they’ve been suffering a long time.  And yet, I’ve seen families who—with good intentions, out of love—keep telling a dying family member, “It’s okay, grandma…it’s okay to go see Jesus now.”  But they don’t realize that sometimes it is not okay; it’s not because grandma doesn’t want to go.  She’s wanted to go for days or weeks; she is tired of the pain.
But God is not ready yet.  He says, “No”.   But we keep telling grandma it is alright to go now, as though grandma decides when she lives and dies.
Because death is inevitable, we don’t want our loved ones to have to keep fighting it forever.  But burying a church?  It’s different.  There are young people and old people in a church.  There are those who are tired and those in the midst of their years; and there are children and infants from whose lips God has ordained praise, to silence the foe and the avenger.
One member of the congregation, I’ve heard, seems to want the congregation to die. “Why don’t you just let it die in peace!”  he’s supposedly said.
This often angers me.  But we’re in different places.  I’m 35 and this is the first congregation I’ve served.  This person is 80 something.  This person has had enough and no longer has the energy to keep leading charges.  Even though I’m worn out, if I was convinced it would accomplish something and I could get anyone to come with, I could probably lead scores more charges.  Let’s paint this!  Let’s convert that!  Let’s show mercy here!  Let’s study this!
But if I get this tired at 35, I can only imagine how I’ll feel at 85.  I would not give an 85 year old a guilt trip for not wanting to endure radiation treatments or chemotherapy.
But a congregation doesn’t exist only for 80 year olds, even if they are the majority.  What about the 35 year olds?  What about the 20 year old mothers in the projects up the streets, and the 7 year olds with no father who don’t know the gospel of Jesus Christ?  What about the children who are the age of my son?  They are the ones who are going to have to come of age in a country in which the wealth and power we enjoyed have become ruins.  They are going to see the collapse of the great tower of Babel built by our great grandfathers, where the church and the Greeks and the Romans were built together in a great city that housed  Bach’s music and Luther’s theology as well as Thomas Jefferson and Robespierre and Nietzsche and Freud.  All of that is going to be a ruin by the time my son is older.  It is already becoming a ruin.  But then the barbarians will be scavenging marble from the aqueducts to build fortifications and vandalizing the statues of Apollo.
It’s easy to preach the pure Gospel at a funeral and say, “Your mother doesn’t have to lead anymore charges.  She rests with Jesus.”
What about for a congregation that wants to die, that wants to be able to die and say, “It was inevitable.  It couldn’t be helped.  The neighborhood was bad.  The old people were bad.  The school was bad.  The pastor was bad.”?
How can a congregation want to die?  “Why will you die, O house of Israel?”  “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”  Much of the congregation wants to die.  Or doesn’t want to avert it’s death.
Because death is upon it.  Sennacherib is surrounding the city.  But no one humbles himself before the Lord.  The church does not pray and fast or weep in dust and ashes.  The congregation does not rouse itself and seek the word of God.  It wants the good days to come back, and if they won’t come back, then nothing is worth working for or saving.  Let our children live in the ruins like owls in the wilderness.
But I think there’s a problem with my preaching and theology, too.  I scold the congregation, as though the dead could raise themselves.  Or as though the lame could strengthen their own wobbly knees.
There may still be time left, but the congregation is no more able to contribute something to its own healing than the mourners are able to comfort themselves.  Mourners try to do that a lot.  They invent false comforts.  “He’s in a better place,” is the one we hear most frequently.  The funeral homes print stupid poems up on cards: “When you stand at my grave, do not weep.  I am not there.  I do not sleep.”
The first task is to take those away without giving the impression that you’re sadistic and you hate them (if possible.)  But it can be done, if there is compassion.  Because no one really believes the stupid poems.
Probably this has been one of my gravest sins in the ministry—that I foolishly preached and acted as though the congregation had any resources to effect its own repentance.  Or as if I had them.
No, neither the minister nor the congregation has the resources to prevent its death. Repentance and renewal in faith and the continued existence of the congregation are in God’s power alone.  All of the three depend on His will alone.
Perhaps I should pray, “Lord, grant the congregation repentance and spiritual renewal.  And grant me to preach Your Word rightly, so that I don’t act as if our salvation is in our own hands.  And if it pleases You, let the congregation continue to proclaim Your Word and Your mercy to the next generation.”
It would probably be a good thing if my pastoral work among the congregation took lessons from my work among the dead.
Posted by at 9:23

The Grinch who Stole Vacation Bible School’s Heart Grows Three Sizes

June 14, 2012 3 comments

I’m not a fan of VBS.  At least, I haven’t been up until now.  I’m not saying I’m a fan now.  I’m just feeling something other than my normal deep seated conviction that I would rather do something else, like shave my eyebrows and eyelids, or lie in a bathtub full of scorpions.

I tend to hate cute stuff.  Even when I was a kid, I was opposed to being forced to do hand motions about “arky, arky, arkies” and “give me gas in my chevy, cuz the Lord’s work is heavy.”  And I also hated dancing around, singing baby songs, and making things with popsicle sticks.  What made it worse was that there were always about 50 percent of the boys in the VBS who made fun of everything and made fun of you if you did what the church moms wanted you to do.  But then my mom was always a VBS teacher, so I’d get it from her on the other end.

But on the other hand, that’s what VBS is about–cute stuff, kid stuff.  And I’ve grown to appreciate how the women who run the VBS at our church put so much into it.  With all the things our congregation has problems with, the VBS is something that we have a good reputation for. For the size of our church we have a huge turnout.

Still, I often find myself muttering to myself or complaining to my wife at VBS time.  “What’s the point of doing VBS?  It doesn’t teach doctrine.  Yet out of all the things that happen at the church, probably more people show up and put their time and energy into it than anything else that’s done around church.  Certainly more than hearing God’s Word…I need to make a whip, and after I get done demolishing Family Bookstore I can begin work on all the VBS’s around town.”

The difficulty is that it’s almost impossible to find a VBS that is like VBS is supposed to be–i.e. fun–and doesn’t teach atrocious doctrine.  I read the stuff the church that I am supposed to shepherd sent home with my son.  It was simply inadequate doctrinally.  It kept talking about how God is with us, but said nothing about Christ, nothing about sin, nothing about repentance, faith or baptism–certainly not baptism.

On the other hand, Concordia’s VBS’s have, in my past experience, just not been very good.  And the little Lutheran publishing houses who make VBS’s that are no doubt doctrinally rich, but simply won’t work here (or I would imagine, in most LCMS churches.)  Besides, being written by pastors, they lack the sensibility that the women who volunteer to do VBS have.  IE they are not cute.  Frankly, I’ve found out a hard lesson through painful experience with Sunday School teachers: if you give the Sunday School teachers (or VBS teachers) materials to teach which is teaching them as much new stuff as the kids, you will frequently have rebellious teachers on your hands–not simply because they don’t respect authority and love cuteness more than God’s Word, but because they have been made to feel stupid.  The difficulty is that often you don’t have an opportunity to teach Sunday School or VBS teachers, because they teach but do not come to bible class.

I used to get angry about this, but now I realize that I was not doing a good job of teaching and shepherding.  The goal is not to frighten the teachers and make them think that all this time they really didn’t know anything about Christianity at all.  The goal is to rejoice in the faith and knowledge the Holy Spirit has already given them, and to build them up in it toward maturity.  But I used to think, “I have to teach the kids NOW,  and I don’t have time for the teachers to finally decide to stop resisting the Holy Spirit!”  I really hope that there are very few men coming out of the seminary who were as impatient and carnal toward Christ’s flock as I was when I started.  I hope that most people know what I’ve learned painfully in the ministry before they get into the parish.

Anyway, so ending the whining about VBS, an interesting thing happened tonight.  I was a Babylonian official.  I asked the kids, “Why doesn’t Daniel just pretend that he doesn’t believe in the Lord and quit praying to get King Nebuchadnezzar off his back?  What’s the big deal?  Just ‘cooperate and graduate'” (as we used to say at seminary).  “If it was me, I’d just pretend that I didn’t believe in the true God, skip the lions, and start praying again later.”  Then I asked the kids, “Wouldn’t you?”

There were about 5 kids in this group.  3 of the kids said, “Yeah, I’d totally do that.”  (They were about 7 or 8 years old.)  These kids don’t really go to church much.  So, they probably didn’t understand wheat the big deal was.  But two little girls stood there and were like, “No, never.  The lions would have to eat me.”  (Of course the point of the story was that God hears our prayers and helps us, a very simple Christianity 101 fact that I didn’t really believe after I stopped being a little kid and found out that sometimes you pray to God for a long time and seem to get no response.)

But it struck me as I walked away from the kids–

this is why VBS is worth doing.  Because the kids get to practice confessing Christ before men and praying out loud.  They get to think about what it meant when people in the Bible confessed the Triune God even though they could have denied Him and saved their lives.

Now the three kids who said they would deny Christ: maybe I sinned against them.  I’m pretty good at expressing skepticism and unbelief, and even though we were just playing, in a sense I was tempting them to sin.  Kyrie eleison.  Lord have mercy!  We should be more careful about how we speak to children!  “If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were tied around his neck and he was thrown into the heart of the sea.” 

That was kind of what was sad about it.  Kids are less hardened as a general rule.  Maybe that’s what Jesus is getting at when He says “Let the little children come to me, for the kingdom of God is of such as these.”  What was sad is that these little kids were expressing the jadedness and cynicism that adults come to wear as armor, even in church.  We crack jokes and are sarcastic and cynical because we know how it feels when the devil and the world make you pay for daring to believe in Christ and entrust yourself to Him.

On the other hand, the two girls who said, “No, never!”  Of course, kids overestimate  their own ability to resist temptation, right?  But I don’t know; I’m not convinced that if right now all of us were about to be thrown to the lions that that little girl wouldn’t have been braver than me and most or all of the men in the church.  She had a look in her eye.  She was serious.  By no means was she going to deny her Lord.  Where did she get this conviction that she should never deny Jesus?  This is not a church full of ultra pious people.

But she did have to risk something just to confess Christ in that way.  The other kids were saying, “Yeah, I’d deny the Lord,” and the pastor (albeit in a costume) seemed to be egging them on.  And she gave me this deadly serious look and  said, “Never.”

In Lutheran theology we say that Christ hides Himself, but comes to us in earthly things.  He speaks to us through the pastor and forgives us.  He really and truly gives us His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins under the bread and wine.  The shepherd’s voice echoes in the ears of the flock through faithful preaching of His word.  In the water with the Word He buries us with Him and resurrects us and seats us with Him at the right hand of the Father.

And then the liturgy teaches us that, just as we come to recognize Christ in the bread and wine by faith, it is “good right and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks”, because the Lord who comes to us in His body and blood on the Lord’s day actually fills all things and is Lord over all things for the church.   Because He gives Himself to us in the Lord’s Supper, all of creation and all of our lives and every experience becomes a gift from Him, because He has redeemed it all.  “All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos…or life or death…all things are yours, for you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.”  (2 Corinthians)

So that said, I think that I just saw the kingdom of God today.  St. Peter denied Jesus.  It was (seemingly) a normal day, just like today.  It was a little serving girl that asked Peter whether he was one of Jesus’ disciples–not someone to be frightened of or take seriously, anymore than this little girl today with her confession.

But in front of that little girl, Peter denied Jesus.  Today, this little girl (of whom Jesus says, “of such is the kingdom of God”)–being tested by her pastor, boldly confessed Christ.  There was no sword at our necks but our Lord Jesus Christ saw the whole thing.  We ignore those things but Jesus ignores nothing.  He was pleased with that little member of His body; He is pleased when we are faithful in small things so that we may be entrusted with great things.

Jesus, Lord, give me such a naive, foolish, unpretentious, unashamed faith in you–a faith that is not shot through with intellectual pride and covered with signals to the unbelieving world and the proud flesh of others that I am not an ignorant little child, that I am one of them as well as one of Christ’s.  Let me be foolish and believing instead of cynical and faithless.  Let me be like this little child instead of one with open eyes, knowing good and evil, but no longer able to know You.

I suppose as long as Jesus continues to show up at VBS and does not despise popsicle sticks, Lutheran congregations and synods or Lutheran pastors, I will put my cloak on and jump into the sea in order to be with him–or put on a palestinian shepherd costume and play bible stories with the kids.

Unwillingness to Suffer

March 7, 2012 1 comment

jesus man of sorrows durerHad he only suffered, Jesus might still have been applauded as the Messiah.  All the sympathy and admiration of the world might have been focused on his passion.  It could have been viewed as a tragedy with its own intrinsic value, dignity and honour.  But in the passion Jesus is a rejected Messiah.  His rejection robs the passion of its halo of glory.  It must be a passion without honour.  Suffering and rejection sum up the whole cross of Jesus.  To die on the cross means to die despised and rejected of men.  Suffering and rejection are laid upon Jesus as a divine necessity, and every attempt to prevent it is the work of the devil, especially when it comes from his own disciples; for it is in fact an attempt to prevent Christ from being Christ.  It is Peter, the Rock of the church, who commits that sin, immediately after he has confessed Jesus as the Messiah and has been appointed to the primacy.  That shows how the very notion of a suffering Messiah was a scandal to the Church, even in its earliest days.  That is not the kind of Lord it wants, and as the Church of Christ it does not like to have the law of suffering imposed upon it by its Lord.  Peter’s protest displays his own unwillingness to suffer, and that means that Satan has gained entry into the church, and is trying to tear it away from the cross of its Lord.

Jesus must therefore make it clear beyond all doubt that the “must” of suffering applies to his disciples no less than to himself.  Just as Christ is Christ only in virtue of his suffering and rejection, so the disciple is a disciple only in so far as he shares his Lord’s suffering and rejection and crucifixion.  Discipleship means adherence to the person of Jesus, and therefore submission to the law of Christ which is the law of the cross.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, rev. ed., Macmillan: NY, p. 96.



God is the Foe of Unafraid Spirits

March 7, 2012 3 comments

Why should [Jesus] die if there were no sin or law for which he must die?  It is apparent from this that the devil’s purpose in this fanaticism is not to remove the law but to remove Christ, the fulfiller of the law.

For he is well aware that Christ can quickly and readily be removed, but that the law is written in the depth of the heart and cannot be erased.  This is clearly seen in the psalms of lamentation.  For here the dear saints are unable to bear the wrath of God.  This is nothing but the law’s perceptible preaching in man’s conscience.  The devil knows very well too that it is impossible to remove the law from the heart.  In Romans 2 St. Paul testifies that the Gentiles who did not receive the law from Moses and thus have no law are nevertheless a law to themselves, being obliged to witness what the law requires is written in their hearts, etc.  But the devil devotes himself to making men secure, teaching them to heed neither law nor sin, so that if sometime they are suddenly overtaken by death or a bad conscience, they have grown so accustomed to nothing but sweet security that they sink helplessly into hell.  For they have learned to perceive nothing in Christ but sweet security.  Therefore such terror must be a sure sign that Christ (whom they understand as sheer sweetness) has rejected and forsaken them.  That is what the devil strives for, and what he would like to see.


It seems to me that these spirits think that all who are listening to the message are pure Christians, without sin—thou in reality they are dejected and downcast hearts who feel their sin and fear God and who therefore must be comforted.  To such, the dear Jesus can never be portrayed sweetly enough.  They need much more of this, as I discovered in many of them0—to say nothing of myself.  But these spirits themselves are not such Christians, for they are so secure and confident.  Neither are their listeners, who also are secure and happy.  In one passage a find, beautiful young woman, a splendid singer, sings thus: “He feeds the hungry so that they rejoice, and sends the rich empty away.  He humbles the mighty and exalts the lowly, and his grace is with those who fear him” [Luke 1:50-53].  If the Magnificat speaks the truth, then God must be the foe of the secure spirits who are unafraid, as such spirits who do away with law and sin are sure to be.


Therefore I ask you, dear Doctor, to keep to the pure doctrine as you have always done.  Preach that sinners must be roused to repentance not only by the sweet grace and suffering of Christ, by the message that he died for us, but also by the terrors of the law.

Luther, “Against the Antinomians”

Private Confession and Absolution, part 4

March 2, 2012 4 comments

English: I cropped this from the image to the ...

From Spiritual Care by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

VIII. Confession as the Heart of Spiritual Care

The goal of all spiritual care is the confession that we are sinners. This confession actualizes itself preeminently in the confessional. So the confessional is the essential focus for all spiritual care. The invitation to confession is the invitation to become a Christian.

…Confession has always stood in highest esteem in the Roman Church as well as in the Eastern church. Originally, the Reformation church held it in high esteem, too. Luther practiced it until his dying day. He protested that the Christian life could not be maintained without confession….however, he moved away from compulsory confession and the necessary enumeration of all known sins. He intended us to move away from any pressure or torment connected with confession and to stress the value of its original meaning: confession is grace.

Luther distinguished three modes of confession:

a. Daily confession to God in one’s prayer.

b. Public confession in the common liturgical confession of sins.

c. Personal confession before a fellow Christian including a confession of concrete sins and a personally addressed absolution.

Luther contended that the first two modes of confession were obligatory; the third one was left up to the freedom of the Christian, but he urgently commended it as a divine offer which could make us sure of our salvation in Christ. “When I exhort people to confession, I am exhorting them to be Christians.” (Large Catechism)

In his early period Luther recognized that any Christian had the right to hear a confession because of the universal priesthood of all believers; later he considered it to be more closely tied to the office of the pastor….

The foundations for confession and absolution are the gift and the mandate of Christ (Matt. 18:18-19; John 20:21-23; cf. also James 5:16; Eph. 4:25, 32; Ps. 32:1-5; Prov. 28:13). In our proclamation we must point out tirelessly what great grace God offers in confession and that people may not reject this offer with impunity. Only in such a way can confession win a place once more in the evangelical church. The following rules are intended to be helpful for preaching about confession.

If I go to confession I go to God. I am not confiding to a human being, rather this person stands wholly in God’s stead. What I say to that person I say to God. He will guard it as God’s secret.

The pastor is called confessor. Thus the confession is not tied to personality….

The pastor cannot help us understand that our reluctance to use confession is groundless if he appears to live a life above and beyond daily trials. No one is beset with such difficult temptations as the Christian and especially the pastor. The devil is right there in his full being wherever the name of Christ is named…Anyone who has seen the meaning of the cross for but a moment is shocked by the godlessness of the world and by the awesomeness of his own sins; he will no longer be shocked by the sins of his sisters and brothers in Christ. The spirit of judgment is cut off at the roots. He knows the other to be accepted by god in the midst of his lostness even as he is accepted. He loves brother and sister under the cross….

In confession everything depends on a personal absolution. In order for this to be certain I must call my sins by name. I come in order to receive. I can only do that when I have previously named my sins. Absolution does not require an expression of need so much as a confession of sin. I can distance myself from my need by unburdening myself on others, but absolution requires me to make a complete confession of sin…

Why isn’t confession of sin to God sufficient? Why must I confess to another human being? Here is a threefold answer:

a. Of course there is confession before God alone. Luther suggests that may be enough for the “strongest Christians.” He reckoned himself, however, to be among the “weak,” who need the assurance that God is not a phantom and that I do not simply forgive myself in the end. I receive this certainty through a fellow Christian. Without the presence of a flesh-and-blood confessor everything might be easily lost in pure reflection. It is quite treacherous if we find it easier to confess our sins before the Holy One than before a person who is no different than us.

b. All secret sins must come to light, if not now then at the last day. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Cor. 5:10). Better now than later! As long as our sin remains hidden, it gnaws away at us and poisons us. Sin creates detritus in the soul. The serpent must stick its head out of its hole in order for it to be clubbed. When another person hears my sins their danger can finally be taken away

c. The root of all sin is pride. I want to live unto myself. I become a law unto myself. I may covet and I may also hate, for I alone am judge. In my pride I wish to be like God. Confession to another human being breaks this arrogance as nothing else can. The old, prideful Adam dies a disgraceful death in great agony. Since this humiliation is so painful, we would rather bypass it and think that it is enough to confess to God. But in our degradation we find our portion in the disgrace of Christ, who was not ashamed to stand before the world as a sinner…

Complete self-surrender to the grace, help, and judgment of God occurs in confession. Everything is surrendered to God; we retain nothing for ourselves. Thus we become free of ourselves. What separates us from obedience and from certainty—our thanklessness, our lack of readiness to forgive, the things that we would cling to as uniquely our own domain—everything is surrendered to Christ and forgiven by him…We have nothing left, not even our sins; they are laid on Christ…

Genuine community is not established before confession takes place….If anyone remains alone in his evil, he is completely alone despite camaraderie and friendship. If he has confessed, however, he will nevermore be alone. He is borne by Christ on whom he has laid his sin, and by the community which belongs to Christ and in which Christ is present with us. In the community of Christ no one needs to be alone.

Related Articles

Prayer of a Person desiring to go to confession for the sake of the holy Absolution. Gebets-Schatz (

Do I have true faith? Thoughts on Announcing For Communion, Self-Examination, and Infant Communion (


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